May 8th, 2012
Four Local Players Heading To UT-Martin
Catholic high school volleyball players set to make impact
It is impossible for Darrin McClure to hide his giddiness.
The excitement in his voice is beyond evident as he dotes over and breaks down his most recent University of Tennessee-Martin volleyball recruiting class.
And for good reason. Actually, make that four good reasons.
Preparing to begin his 5th season as the head volleyball coach with the Ohio Valley Conference’s UT-Martin Skyhawks in northwestern Tennessee, McClure and his squad are coming off the program’s best season in nearly a decade.
The 19 wins last year were the most by any UT-Martin team since 2002 and an appearance in the conference championship game against Morehead State created momentum that McClure and Co. plan to emulate and harness when practices begin in three months for the 2012 campaign.
But despite all the triumph and achievements that McClure has experienced, the Clinton, KY native seems to be the most excited he’s ever been regarding the future of Skyhawk volleyball after recruiting and successfully signing four elite high school players who will play for Tennessee-Martin this Fall.
All members of the same Kentucky-Indiana Volleyball Academy (KIVA) team, and each coming from a Louisville area Catholic high school, Chelsea Bowles (Assumption), Lynsey Hazelwood (Holy Cross), Amanda Crask (Mercy) and Dallas Zimmerman (Assumption) will take their collective talent to the same campus next year when they put on the UT-Martin orange and blue and play collegiate volleyball for McClure’s now-thriving program.
Breaking the Ice
Named the interim head volleyball coach at Martin in 2008, McClure was determined to build a prolific program by finding recruits who were ready to make significant and immediate impacts as freshmen.
So he made the 294-mile trip to Louisville to scout some of the state’s best high school players.
“Louisville is just a hotbed for very good volleyball. Kids who play there know they have to work hard to play high school and club volleyball and to be generally successful there,” said McClure. “And that just breeds confidence for players as they transition into the college level.”
Upon his arrival to Derby City, McClure came across Assumption High School’s Kasey Elswick. And while Elswick was a member of a Rockets team that eventually won three state championships during her four years at AHS, she wasn’t necessarily the shining star of the group.
But McClure was still intrigued by her play, so he sought the guidance of a peer.
“I got some great advice from a coaching friend of mine when I was recruiting Kasey, and he reminded me to remember what kind of competition she was playing against, even in practice – high school and club,” said McClure. “I’m so glad I took that advice because the competition that Kasey had played against in Louisville made her transition (at Martin) very smooth. She was able to come right in and be competitive for us right off the bat.”
McClure could have never imagined how successful she would or could be.
During her first three years at UT-Martin, Elswick has become one of the most decorated players in school history. She earned the program’s first-ever OVC Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2010 and is just the 3rd Skyhawk to ever receive all-conference honors.
Last season, Elswick took her accomplishments to a new level when she set the all-time NCAA record for single-season digs (852) and shattered the previous benchmark in the 25-point scoring format/unlimited libero substitutions era, which was previously held by Lara Newberry (Chattanooga) and her 777 digs.
Elswick, a Louisville native, also broke down Tennessee-Martin barriers by being named the program’s first-ever All-American, collecting honorable mention status by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) and bringing home an AVCA All-Midwest regional award.
Needless to say, Elswick’s prominent success has gotten the attention of other volleyball players in Louisville and essentialy put Martin on the map for young ladies who suddenly had a new school to consider when making college plans.
“Kids have a comfort level when they know people who have gone somewhere,” said McClure. “UT-Martin has never had an Assumption graduate or KIVA volleyball alumnae play here before, so once Kasey kind of broke that ice, and kids saw she was having success here that made a big difference.”
Elswick’s Role Expands to Student Recruiter
When McClure began to realize that the recruitment of a slew of talented high school volleyball players in Louisville was more than just a pipe dream, he put his best player, Skyhawk poster girl and, most importantly, his instant ice breaker Elswick on the job.
And once the Assumption grad was informed that fellow alums from her club and alma mater teams were considering Tennessee Martin, Elswick became ecstatic.
“I couldn’t have been more excited,” said a jubilant Elswick.
Thrilled over the prospect of having some Louisville flavor in her locker room, Elswick’s elation spiked when this fantastic foursome from her hometown inked their respective National Letters of Intent and made their intentions to play for Tennessee Martin official.
“I have been able to see these girls grow up under me at KIVA and they have all grown into tremendous players,” said Elswick. “Martin is a great town, and I can’t wait for them to experience it. As for the volleyball program, it only means great things. The competitive nature coming from (the likes of) Assumption is what UTM needs to win a championship, which we are definitely hoping to do this Fall.”
“As a team, we are determined to win. We will be very young (this season) but I expect us to do great things,” Elswick continued. “We had a little taste of what a championship feels like last year as we competed in the conference final match against Morehead. We’re ready to come back and prove what we’ve been working so hard for. And I believe the girls coming in will embrace that attitude and run with it.”
Another Catholic Connection in Martin
The immense excitement on display by McClure and Elswick is also matched by UT-Martin second-year assistant volleyball coach Julia Noe.
Also a member of the Louisville Catholic volleyball connection, Noe is a Sacred Heart Academy alum and was a four-year starter who led the Valkyries to the KHSAA state championship in 2003. Noe racked up all-state, all-district, all-tournament and academic all-state awards while at SHA.
A three-time All-American for KIVA, Noe led her club team to a pair of AAU national championships and eventually went on to become one of the best players in the history of the Western Kentucky University program in Bowling Green.
Noe and Elswick both proved to be a wealth of information for McClure, as the duo was able to feed him pertinent information pertaining to the success of Louisville clubs/schools, the tradition of Catholic rivalries and the history of exceptional talent on the local volleyball courts.
Heavy Expectations for Freshmen
Due to such grandiose success by his four Louisville signees, McClure is not shy when it comes to sharing his outlook, both short term and long term, for this talented crop of volleyball players who will be a part of team workouts beginning on August 9th.
“If we have modest expectations, then we’re going to reach those every time. I’m going to expect those girls to be as good as they can be, and I told every one of them during a recruiting visit that just because you’re a freshman doesn’t mean you can’t come in and start or be an impact player. As a matter of fact, I expect that,” said McClure. “And that’s why I recruit kids from Louisville – because I know they have competed and played at a high level ever since they started playing volleyball."
“I am super excited about these kids,” he continued. “It’s been fun recruiting all of them and I told Julia (Noe) several times, ‘As much as I have enjoyed seeing this program grow, I am really excited about the Fall. I think the next significant step for our program starts in the Fall of 2012 and a big part of that is going to be those kids from Louisville.”
With 10 players coming back from his OVC runner-up squad from 2011, McClure is anxious to see his returning group merge with the Class of 2012 and become an instant force. He also anticipates that classes/classifications will be tossed out the window and his starting lineup and rotation will be built based on performance.
“I expect several of them, if not all of them, to make significant impacts with a lot of playing time,” said McClure of his incoming group of freshmen. “And even if some of them aren’t playing a lot, they’re still going to make us better just by being in the gym and competing and pushing our upperclassmen to be better as well."
“I’m going to put the best team possible on the floor, and if it’s freshmen, it’s freshmen.”
A Look at the Fantastic Foursome
When McClure first watched Assumption’s Bowles play when she was 16 years old, the UT-Martin head coach instantly saw similarities between the Rockets libero and the Skyhawks’ heralded libero Elswick.
“In my opinion, Chelsea is just as good,” said McClure. “I expect a lot of her coming in and I’ve already talked to her about my expectations. I don’t think (Chelsea) is going to take a backseat to anybody, which is good because you want her to have confidence coming into college to play.”
Bowles, a captain and four-year libero at Assumption and St. Athanasius product, was named to the All-Tournament team in the Durango Classic, KHSAA All-Tournament Team, LouisvilleCatholicSports.com First Team, KHSAA State Honorable Mention team, and Asics Challenge ESPN top 10 player.
“My philosophy for a libero or someone who plays a defensive specialist position is you have to be gritty. And the first time I ever watched Chelsea play, I left the court thinking that she was very aggressive and had some of the same qualities that (Elswick) has,” said McClure. “I looked at some notes that I had taken on her just the other day, and they said, ‘Top choice for Class of 2012'."
Hazelwood, who led the Holy Cross High School Cougars to its most successful four-year volleyball run in school history, joins the Skyhawks as one of the top recruits in Kentucky according to Steve Ouellette of ESPN. A two-time KVCA all-state first team honoree (2010-11), Hazelwood led the Cougars to a 26-11 mark in 2011 under head coach Matt Thomerson, ranking as the seventh-best team in Kentucky. She is also the owner of back-to-back Region 6 Player of the Year awards.
“Lynsey has a great mind for the game,” McClure said. “Her skill set is such that should allow her to contribute right away. She has a variety of shots that will help her score at the next level. She also has an extremely strong arm and was also a player I was instantly impressed with when I came to watch her play for the first time.”
Hazelwood was named an All-Catholic first team selection in 2011 by LouisvilleCatholicSports.com, helped Holy Cross to an All “A” state title in 2009 and was a member of the KHSAA all-state tournament team in 2008.
On the AAU circuit, Hazelwood was part of a national championship team in 2008 and was an All-American in 2008 and 2009. Her individual performances led to a Max Preps Player of the Week selection in August 2009 and August 2010.
Crask prepped for Mercy Academy head coach Todd Garvey, leading the Jaguars to a 29-12 record with a No. 4 rank in Kentucky in 2011. Named by ESPN’s Ouellette as one of Kentucky’s top recruits, she was named to the KVCA all-state first team in both 2010 and 2011.
Crask helped the Jaguars to a KHSAA state championship in 2008 and 2009, followed by a state runner-up finish in 2010. She was honored with a spot on the state all-tournament team in 2009. A left-hander, Crask blossomed onto the scene as a sophomore when she was named an All-American by Prep Volleyball.
“She’s pretty darn athletic and she’s got pretty big hands for a setter, which I think is a good thing. It also makes her a better blocker,” said McClure of Crask. “We haven’t had a left-handed setter since Lindsay Vicknair, and she was 2nd in all-time OVC career assists – and I think Amanda is in that same mold.”
Crask was named an AAU All-American in 2008, leading MidAmerica Volleyball Association (MAVA) to a national runner-up berth. She was named one of the top-20 most improved players in the country in 2009 and was also a 2011 Second Team All-Catholic selection by LouisvilleCatholicSports.com.
“She is a phenomenal athlete,” McClure said. “She can play right side as a hitter or setter. We recruited her to set but it’s nice to know she can do either one. She will be a great addition to our program and I’m really eager to see how she develops as a player.”
Zimmerman, a four-year middle blocker for Assumption, was named to the All District team, All State Tournament team, and Second Team All State. She racked up 172 kills (2.4 per set) while hitting a robust .573 and adding 35 blocks during her senior campaign.
For her efforts, Zimmerman was named a second team all-state player, in addition to receiving all-district and all-state tournament team accolades. She and high school teammate Bowles led Assumption to back-to-back state championships in 2010-11.
Last season, that duo also helped guide the Rockets to a 43-1 mark – earning a No. 3 national rank on the ESPN Powerade Top 50 standings. They were also part of a squad that chalked up victories in prominent tournaments in Muncie, Ind. (Burris Invitational), Las Vegas (Durango Classic) and Chicago (Asics Challenge).
“I am excited about Dallas. She brings a fire and intensity to the court,” said McClure. “This kid loves the game of volleyball and wants to win. I am excited to see her grow and be a great college player. She fits what we are trying to do here very well.”
These four girls were seniors on teams in 2011 that combined to go 98-24, win one state championship, one regional championship and one regional runner-up.
Bringing it All Together
McClure says he’s never signed players that previously played for the same club, or same high school volleyball team for that matter, but said he is “excited to see how that dynamic unfolds” and does not expect any chemistry issues because of this unprecedented scenario.
“We’ve been fortunate to get so many from Louisville for the class of 2012,” said McClure. “I didn’t set out for it to happen that way, but that’s just how it kind of went. And I’m very excited about it.”
Along with the high expectations he has for his future freshmen, McClure also expects big things from Elswick as her leadership role evolves and takes on new responsibilities as a result of her instant connection to her new teammates.
“What I expect is that Kasey will take these kids under her wing and let them know how we do things and how things should be done the right way.”
With a Valkyrie on the bench, an accomplished Rocket/Skyhawk on the floor and now two more Rockets, a Cougar and Jaguar on the way, McClure seems to think that he has found an excellent formula for success and is hopeful that this Louisville-heavy recruiting class leads to big things in 2012 and for years to come.
“I would be perfectly fine with getting a lot of kids from the Louisville area because I’m pretty sure I know what I’m getting,” said McClure. “They’re going to be well-coached, they’re going to compete at a high level and they’re going to give me all of they’ve got.”
So does McClure believe that his new-found recruitment success in Louisville will lead to a long line of Derby City recruits crossing the state line to play at Tennessee-Martin?
“Hearing that question sure makes me smile, because I sure hope so,” says McClure “The more success we have, the more it will open doors to kids in the Louisville area.”
“And I will welcome them with open arms.”